“Finding New Friends & Building Relationships” by Sheryl Gehrls
|Principle #6: All my relationships with friends and family were impacted when my spouse died, leaving me to find new roles and ways of relating. I choose not to be offended or take it personally when these relationships seem to disappear. Rather, I choose to begin to build new relationships, sharing with others for the mutual good of myself and those around me.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Where did all my friends go? Have you asked yourself that question yet? You’d be a very unusual widow if the thought hasn’t at least crossed your mind! Some studies show that widows typically lose 75-80% of all their friends. That seems like an astonishing number! Could it possibly be accurate? As you consider your own relationships for a moment, does it feel like your pool of friends has shrunk considerably since the death of your spouse? Like most widows, your answer is likely to be “Yes!”
Losing such a large portion of our relationships definitely contributes to those common feelings of loneliness that all widows share. We tend to think this results from no longer having our spouse with us, but the truth is that we no longer have a LOT of people with us! These changes in our relationships are known as “secondary losses”, meaning that death was the primary loss; however, each of these relational changes is a separate but connected loss. No wonder the grief of losing your spouse can seem so overwhelming!
Part of the image of God created within us has to do with a need for relationships with others. When those relationships disappear, we feel the loss keenly within our hearts. We may feel isolated, rejected, or even wounded by our disappearing friends, even though they may be totally oblivious!
So, why does this happen? The first consideration is that following a significant loss like the death of a spouse, part of us is forever changed, and we literally become a different person. Relationships in families and with friends change as a result. These changes impact every area of our social life from who our dinner companions are to who is invited to our home. The new widow suddenly finds herself in the position of being half of a couple. Awkward, to say the least!
Sometimes it simply takes too much emotional energy to interact socially. Sometimes it’s even too much to put together an outfit other than sweats or pj’s! It’s just easier to say “No”. When we continually refuse invitations, our friends finally give up, thinking we just prefer to be alone! At a time when we most need someone close by, we tend to give off a message that says, “Include me! Leave me alone!” I finally told my closest friends, “I know I’m telling you no a lot, but keep asking. One day I’ll say yes!”
Then there are those people who just don’t know what to say to us once they’ve expressed their condolences. They don’t know whether or not to talk about our spouse. They may even be reminded of their own mortality and simply prefer not to deal with it. THEY feel uncomfortable with US, so it’s easier just to not reach out to us.
Probably the most basic of all reasons is that life simply continues on for the rest of the world. While my entire world has changed, and absolutely nothing is the same, life for others goes on and picks up where it left off before my husband died. At first, there may be many people around, but gradually we find fewer and fewer who come by or call. Those encouraging notes and cards that flooded in slow to a trickle, and eventually they cease altogether.
No one is really to blame for this, and it’s essential that we are very careful not to overreact to the signs of fading relationships. It’s just that the cares of life begin to demand attention, and we find ourselves on diverging pathways. Don’t assume you’re not invited to an event just because you’re no longer married! It’s so important to not jump to unrealistic conclusions.
To help you visualize this, try the following activity. On a large piece of paper, begin to diagram all the groups of friends that you and/or your husband had: his work friends, his high school/college friends, friends you had as a couple, your work friends, his family, your family, etc. Begin to cross out those groups of friends that you no longer see on a regular basis, for instance, his work friends. Gradually, you’ll begin to see why it feels like so many have disappeared from your life…because they have! This helps us to de-personalize the loss a bit and to understand that people are not intentionally trying to hurt us. This is especially true if you have moved, changed jobs, or even changed churches.
Finding new friendships can be very challenging during those first few months when your brain isn’t working right, your whole being is in shock, and you can hardly find the energy to get out of bed in the morning. May I offer a small bit of advice? Pay attention to the people God brings into your life during this season! He will bring individuals that are uniquely gifted to minister to you in ways that you never anticipated. They will meet needs for you that you didn’t even know you had. Your heavenly Father, who knows all the needs of your heart, has gifted others of His children to care for you when you need it most.
When it seems most difficult, be aware of those around you. Reach out to those who may also be widows, walking this road a bit ahead of you. They have gleaned wisdom and maturity from their own experiences and can be greatly encouraging to the rest of us. Don’t spend the rest of your time ruminating on all the relationships that used to be. Look around you and reach out to those many new friends who are just waiting to make your acquaintance!